Lilian Heath. Such a demure name.
She was anything but.
In the 1880s, Lilian’s pa got her a job assisting Dr. Thomas Maghee, the physician
in the wide-open railroad town of Rawlins, WY. A petite little thing still in high school, Lilian was pretty fearless, but not stupid. She dressed like a man and carried a .32 when she went on calls late at night. She and the doc did everything from delivering babies to reconstruct a man’s face after his failed suicide attempt.
The nursing position set Lilian’s destiny. She graduated high school, and, with her father’s blessing and Dr. Maghee’s recommendation, headed off to the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Keokuk, Iowa. She was one of only three women in the class. After completing her training, she returned to Rawlins to practice medicine and was well-received … by the menfolk. The women in town were another story. Catty, and jealous, they whispered behind her back, accused her of being a know-it-all, a few even refused to pay Lilian for services rendered. Lilian’s mother Calista wasn’t thrilled with the vocation either, believing her daughter had over-stepped her bounds as a woman.
Maybe, but if a man lay dying of a gunshot wound 30 or 40 miles away, Lilian put on her big girl breeches and made the ride.
Clearly, being a trained female physician was a bad thing, because you could, you know, save lives.
Lilian met her husband, Louis Nelson, in Rawlins and they were married in 1898. He was a painter and a decorator. Go figure. Lilian practiced medicine for fifteen years and then quietly retired, though she kept her medical license current much, much longer than that.
Unfortunately, you can’t read any article about Lilian that doesn’t mention her “connection” to an outlaw. In 1881, while Lilian was still in high school and a candy-striper, for all intents, Big Nose George Parrot was lynched for murdering a deputy. When no one claimed the body, Doctor Maghee stepped up. Curious to see if the bandit’s brain was somehow deformed, he dissected the man’s head, in the name of science. Lilian assisted with the autopsy and was given Big Nose George’s skull cap as a souvenir. She kept it for years, using it for everything from a doorstop to a pipe holder.
Reporters loved to mention that story as if it was her greatest achievement.
My guess is, there were a few members of the press she would have liked to use as doorstops.
But she didn’t let the claws or the snipes get to her. Lilian never gave in, never backed down, never lost faith. I say thanks for paving the way!
Guest story today is from Maria Tonseth!
My dad and his three brothers grew up on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio.
They were all close in age and were inseparable, as if they were more of
best friends rather than brothers. Everyone around town knew the brothers
and often referred to them as the “Tonseth rascals,” because more than
likely they were getting into trouble from playing pranks of the neighbors.
My dad’s biggest dream was to play a prank on his 5th grade teacher, Ms.
During a cold and snowy December, the four brothers built a snow fort and
filled it with snowballs to launch at cars as they drove by. While rolling
the perfect snowballs, my dad came up with the great idea to stack hundreds
of snowballs on Ms. Garrison’s car, who lived three doors down from
their house. After many treks to her house to cover it with hundreds,
yes hundreds, of snowballs, the “Tonseth rascals” admired their finished
product and quickly ran home to celebrate their accomplishment. The
brothers couldn’t wait to tell their friends at school what they did to Ms.
But right as the brothers were walking into their driveway, their mother
and Ms. Garrison were waiting on the porch bundled up in scarves and
jackets and drinking hot chocolate. They were laughing away as the “Tonseth rascals” stood there: jaws opened and dumbfounded. My grandmother was a teacher and friends with Ms. Garrison, and she had come over to enjoy hot cocoa and catch up on their lives. Instead, she was entertained by secretly watching the four brothers stack hundreds of snowballs on her car. Needless to say, she made just my father pick every single snowball off her car, and then my grandmother allowed his brothers to throw them at him. Guess the prank was on my dad.
Today’s Lady in Defiance is submitted by Mary Margaret Smith
Back in the early 50’s, my grandma was a young divorcee with an 8 year old
daughter by her first marriage, and my granddaddy was a young widower.
When they met, my grandma had taken a bookkeeping class at a local college
and her teacher recommended her to my granddaddy, who had recently returned
home from the war and started a furniture business. He hired her and they
soon began dating, often going out after work.
However, Burlington was a pretty small town at the time, and in a year or
two my grandma heard a rumor that, even though he was supposedly dating my
grandma exclusively, he was dating local schoolteacher on the weekends!
She found the rumor to be true, and without even saying anything to my granddaddy, she
decided to leave town. She had a sister who had moved out to Hawaii
several years before, so she packed up her whole home and life, and had all
her possessions shipped in crates to Hawaii. She and my aunt flew out the
My granddaddy figured out what had happened and managed to get hold of her
when she was in St. Louis for a night with an uncle of hers. He told her
he had broken up with the other woman and begged her to come back, but she
refused. She told him, “If you love me that much, you’ll have to come all
the way to Hawaii and get me!”
So, my grandma and her young daughter flew all the way to Hawaii. The day
after their arrival, my granddaddy appeared on her doorstep! He told her that he
had been a complete idiot and proposed right there. They were married in a
quaint little church in Hawaii two days later, and then turned right around and headed
back to North Carolina! In fact, they were married and left Hawaii before the
crates of all my grandma’s possessions had even arrived there!
My grandparents remained married the rest of their lives, and I really have
never seen two people more in love, but I’ve also never really heard a
story of a marriage so unique as this one! It’s also pretty scary to think
how close they came to losing each other forever, but whenever my
granddaddy told the story, he insisted that he would never have let that
happen. And up until his death a few years ago, my grandma would never
tell the story without jokingly reminding granddaddy how much he had goofed
up when he tried double-crossing her!
Mary Margaret Smith
“No one will vote for her. She’s a woman.”
And so started a joke that launched a sleepy Kansas town to international fame—as the first municipality in America to elect a woman mayor.
In 1882, Susanna Madora “Dora” Kinsey Salter moved with her husband Lewis to the quiet little town of Argonia. The couple managed a hardware store while Lewis sought the opportunity to read law with a local attorney. When things fell into place for him, Dora’s parents moved to town as well to take over the mercantile. Her father, Oliver Kinsey was elected mayor of the hamlet and husband Lewis Salter became the City Clerk.
Though busy having and raising children, Dora’s Christians convictions compelled her to support the Christian Women’s Temperance Union. This group was one of the less radical suffragist and temperance organizations in the country, as it mixed Christian morals with equality and compassion. But it was a group that decried alcohol, which didn’t win its members any friends in the drinking population. As a joke, a group of imbibers put Dora’s name on the ballot for mayor in ‘87, knowing she would earn a pitifully embarrassing number of votes.
These men neglected to tell Dora’s husband of the prank. Lewis was not amused when he went to vote and discovered his wife’s name at the top of his ballot.
Even more shocking, Dora won with over 2/3 of the town’s votes.
She accepted the office and Lewis, who again won City Clerk, regained his good humor. He often joked about being “married to the mayor.” The election made international news and a shining star out of the 27-year-old Dora, but it did not ignite her political passions. A year into her term, she announced she wouldn’t run for re-election.
By all accounts, this determined young lady was a fine parliamentarian, wise legislator, and dignified public servant. She went out of her way to work with the all-male town council, carefully soothing over ruffled rooster feathers. But she would probably tell you her finest hour as mayor occurred when she delivered her fifth child.
She loved her town and her causes, but she loved her family more. Though she stayed an active member of the CWTU for many years, she never again “ran” for public office, to the dismay of many suffragists. Perhaps because too many of them expected Dora to think “their” way. Putting family above voting rights offended some big names in the movement. Carrie Nation once scolded Dora for heading off to a football game instead of a meeting. Dora replied, “Not go to the game? Why, I have a son on the team!”
Now that’s A Lady in Defiance.
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton